Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Conception Bay Harbour: Sunken Ship Confusion

 For over two years my post regarding the S.S. Sposa has been among the top ten articles accessed by readers. The last two weeks saw a jump in numbers, making me curious. Why now? Well, when I got The Telegram on Monday and saw the cover story, it was obvious. An unsettling report by the Shipwreck Preservation Society of NL uncovered the truth about what vessel is really "hulking" the harbour. It's not the S.S. Sposa, as so many thought for so many years. For me, this new information actually raises more questions than it answers.
Wanting to know more sent me into a frenzy of Internet research to locate a story that supports those findings. What I found could hardly fill a shot glass. Why is there so little information available about the Hawke Harbour whaling fleet under the command of Captain Johan Borgen. The absence of information on the Net explains why so many people are landing on my website. My blog comes up in the top five listings using a variety of search engines. Among the other top five items, is the news release about the recent underwater research. To me, this means, I need to strive to provide accurate information regarding this ship I first saw two years ago.
By word of mouth and multiple pictures of the bow protruding out of the water in Conception Bay Harbour, I concluded the ship was the S.S. Sposa. That was the general belief of many for years.  I wonder how that could be.
With the new information regarding the whale catcher visible in the harbour, I began to collect the little information I could find. Starting with the S.S. Sposa,  I was able to determine it was built as a whaler at Smith's Dock Company, South Bank in the UK. It was launched on May 10, 1926 to its first owner South Georgia Company, Port Stanley, Falkland Islands. It worked as a whaler until it was requisitioned into anti-submarine service from April 1940 to July 1945. Following its military service, it seemed to have fallen off the radar for a while. In November 1956 is was purchased by the Hawke Harbour Whaling Company in St. John's, Newfoundland and went into service under the command of Capt. J. Borgen. Smith's Dock Company Ltd. reports the S.S. Sposa was scuttled 6 miles from Conception Harbour, Newfoundland.

The other four ships in the Hawke Harbour Whaling fleet were the SS Southern Foam, SS Sukha, SS Charcot and the SS Soika.  The Southern Foam was launched in August 1926 and abandoned in Conception Bay. In 1959 this ship was damaged when it struck a sunken rock. It was then tied up in Conception Bay Harbour, repaired and put back into service. According to Smith's Dock Company, the S.S. Southern Foam   was sold to Dominion Metals as scrap in 1970.
 Somehow a sixth ship got mixed up in the whaling fleet.  In a paper by Dennis Flynn: "The Story of the Conception Harbour Shipwrecks and the Last Whaler," he reported the S.S. Southern Chief was a part of this fleet. It seems it was not. I attempted  to relocate the paper I read about two years ago, and I can no longer find it on the Internet. The story of the S.S. Southern Chief , according to Smith's Dock Company records, indicates this whaler was also launched in August 1926, but this ship never joined the Hawke Harbour Whaling Company and was stripped of its fittings and scuttled off S. Georgia in February 1961.  So what was the name of the fifth ship? With input from Capt. Borgen's daughter, I learned the S.S. Soika was the fifth boat.

Smith's Dock Co. reports the S.S. Soika was launched in July 1925. It was also reported this ship was on Admiralty Requisition and served as a minesweeper from 1940 to 1945. In 1956, like the other four whalers in the fleet, the S.S. Soika joined the Hawke Harbour fleet.  Also according to Smith's Dock Co., in the end this ship was towed 6 miles from Conception Bay Harbour and scuttled in 1968.

Smith's Dock Company further reports on the fourth ship in the fleet; the S.S. Sukha was launched in June 1929 and joined the Hawke Harbour fleet in 1956. Four years later it was reportedly "laid up" in Harbour Grace. In 1968, it is reported the S.S. Sukha broke its moorings and became stranded in Conception Bay Harbour. Then in 1971, it is said, it was broken up for metal by the Dominion Metal Ltd. of Canada. (It seems that is not the case.)

That brings us to the last ship in the fleet: The S.S. Charcot. Where did this ship come from? I have turned the "net" upside down, and there is no mention of this ship being built. Is it possible it was launched under another name and renamed (as many ships were) sometime along the way. There is no mention of the S.S. Charcot being associated with the Hawke Harbour fleet except by Capt. Borgen's daughter and Scuba Quest. On their website Scuba Quest website indicates it is the S.S. Southern Foam rising out of the water, and that the S.S. Sukha and the S.S. Charcot are resting under water nearby. (In another post relating to this story, a blogger has attached a link to Google earth that shows the outline of the other two sunken vessels - very interesting.) On two diving websites, I found reports the S.S. Sposa and the S.S. Soika were scuttled only a mile out from the harbour.

Now - the latest news: The Shipwreck Preservation team report definitively it is the S.S. Charcot looming large over Conception Bay Harbour, and it is the S.S. Southern Foam and the S.S. Sukha that are resting under water nearby.  It is thought the other two ships, the S.S. Sposa and the S.S. Soika sank further out in the harbour when they were being towed to a scrapyard. Perhaps, the Dominion Metals company has more information about this event. Smith's Dock Company reports the S. S. Soika to have been dismantled and the S.S. Sposa to have been scuttled six miles from the harbour. But then again, they also reported the Southern Foam was sold as scrap in 1970 and the S.S. Sukha was broken up for metal in 1971. It seems that didn't happen. However, this company seems to have been correct about the S. S. Sposa and the S.S. Soika being towed out and scuttled about six miles from the harbour.

And so, there it is - all the info I could find on the internet. To say I am baffled is an understatement. There were so few references to these whale catchers, and each one seemed to contradict the other. What is even more confounding is that there must surely be living people who worked on or around these ships. The last activities relating to their end was only 45 years ago.  Then, there is the next generation. Where is the oral history relating to these historical whaling vessels. The whaling  history in Conception Bay has much potential as a tourist destination, but the real history has to be ferreted out and soon, while there are surely people still around who can fill in the gaps and the facts of what really happened to these five ships. If any of these ships were scrapped as reported by the boat builder, there must be records at Dominion Metals. Ltd. I find myself wondering if a visit to the NL Archives might be in order to get the real truth of J. Borgen's fleet. Are there any photos of these ships in their heyday? Are there any relics from these ships remaining?

All too often, the value and quality of historical events are back-benched until it is too late to really compile an accurate account. The inconsistent reporting currently available really adds to the confusion. I think, rightly or wrongly, the best place to begin is to gather the oral reports of anyone and everyone associated with these ships. It would also be very interesting to hear personal accounts of the final years of the whaling industry in Newfoundland. Because of the lack of information and consistency in reporting, I find myself very interested in this little slice of Newfoundland's history.

I invite anyone with additional information to please leave a comment or to send me an e-mail through the contact section on the bottom right of this screen.

My original report on the ship in Conception Bay is here:

Other sources referenced are:


  1. Hi Lisa,
    More info on the Charcot is available by Googling "Charcot" and "Lardex". The Shipwreck Preservation Society and the town of Conception Hbr will soon be putting up a storyboard at the shipwreck site with lots of info on the three wrecks. Neil

  2. What ACTUAL evidence doe the Society have that the wreck is Charcot and not Sposa? As the previous commentator points out, lots of the history of both is readily available on line, But nothing concrete for the scuttlings /strandings. Thanks. Tony

  3. Hi, my Grandfather was on the SS Soika when she was a minesweeper for the Royal Navy, he was an Engineer but was acting Lieutenant during some of that time. He later brought out the Kos I and Kos II whaling boats to hunt for whales at Tangalooma on Moreton Island of Brisbane in Australia as he was a engineer on whaling boats when WW2 broke out. Regards, Jamie